Charleston resident Caroline King wondered in a letter to the editor if the towering statue of John C. Calhoun in Marion Square should be replaced with another honoring S.C. Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, for whom the park is named. “Wouldn’t it make more sense?” she asks.
The answer depends on 1) if you are offended by a pro-slavery South Carolinian twice elected vice president being held in such, uh, high regard or 2) if you’re aware that no actual likeness of Gen. Marion — also known as the Swamp Fox — exists, thus a realistic representation the man would be purely guesswork.
Let’s take a closer look at the loftier subject. John C. Calhoun was long considered an American statesman on both sides of the congressional aisle. In 1957, a Senate committee headed by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy — whose book “Profiles in Courage” won a Pulitzer Prize that year — selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. senators of all time. “Sincerely devoted to the public good as he saw it, the ultimate tragedy of his final cause neither detracts from the greatness of his leadership nor tarnishes his efforts to avert bloodshed.” Powerful words from a Massachusetts liberal.
It’s also interesting to note Calhoun’s statue didn’t always reach such preeminence (80 feet tall today) on Charleston’s peninsula. In 1850, the year “the Great Nullifier” died, the city staged what was its most elaborate funeral ever. His coffin was paraded through the streets and his funeral service followed inside St. Philip’s Church before his remains were buried in the churchyard, a coveted resting place for the local elite. Soon afterward, three rather prominent white women met over tea and formed the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association.
To get their mission started, they contributed a whopping $2 to the fund, which 37 years later reached $44,000. The drive was delayed by the firing on Fort Sumter and the uncertainty of Reconstruction. Thus it wasn’t until April 1887 that his bronze statue, mounted on an elaborate platform not far off the ground, was unveiled along with the likeness of a strange looking woman sitting judiciously at his feet.
The News and Courier’s front page story attempted to set the scene:
"Robed in sunshine, redolent with the varied perfumes of her numerous gardens fanned hither and thither by exhilarating breezes from the sea, Charleston, resting in the lap of her encircling bay, smiled a most gracious welcome to her guests on Calhoun Day.”
But, all prattle aside, a cultural thunder storm soon blew in. Only one (Justice) of four proposed allegorical female figures (the others were Truth, History and the Constitution) accompanied Calhoun on the pedestal. She sat dolefully and was denigrated mightily by Gullah-speaking critics as merely “he wife.” A finger on Calhoun’s right hand jutted out from his fist in odd fashion and his cape made him look like a character in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Indeed, Calhoun’s portraits are dominated by a shock of tempestuous hair and a Jekyll-turned-Hyde glare.
But most unsettling for the ladies, their idol stood easily within pelting range of black Charlestonians who took great delight in assaulting him with sticks, stones, rotting vegetables and worse. They didn’t look kindly upon the man who proclaimed American slavery a “positive good” for everyone involved. A low fence was erected but monumental abuse did not stop.
The late Mamie Garvin Fields, born in 1888 and one of Charleston’s earliest civil rights leaders, remembered the initial iteration of Calhoun holding forth atop his lowdown pedestal:
“Blacks took that statue personally ... here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘N -----, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.' I believe white people were talking to us about Jim Crow through that statue.” Protesters zeroed in on knocking off Mr. Calhoun’s protruding nose and errant finger, she said.
Thus in 1896 the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association paid to dismantle the first version and ditch the figure of “he wife.” They elevated a new statue of their man out of range of hand-held projectiles and no longer in the face of anyone — so high that it could be Francis Marion up there and no one would know it.
Which makes for a fascinating story about Charleston’s most controversial monument — literally a “must see” for tourists as they ogle the wealth of old buildings, statues, parks and steeples that Charlestonians have wisely preserved for centuries — artifacts of the good, the bad, the happy, the sad — making the city’s history all the richer.
John M. Burbage is a veteran journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and grows organic vegetables on his family farm in Hampton County. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.